College’s ESL program celebrates diversity

There are many opportunities for students to get involved with diversity

Michelle Abbott


Wind sweeps through a willow tree. Its branches swing back and forth in the dance. The road stretches out and disappears. Maple trees let out sap at the same time each year; its leaves change color but its form remains the same. Picture home. Remember childhood experiences. All of these pieces are threads of invisible glue anthropologists call culture. These threads make up the human identity.

Imagine these patterns becoming fragmented, like the bits of an unraveling quilt. Each bit unwinds into a pile of unfamiliar pieces. Envision losing touch with many or all of these pieces. Leaving home for another country can be compared to broken parts of the human fabric.

All nations have a patchwork of cultural fabric imprinted on their identities. When someone leaves home, he or she may become disoriented, a phenomenon known as culture shock. Coming to a foreign land is like reverting to a new childhood. Everything must be re-learned. Empathizing with diversity is an important part of putting the pieces back together.

Pierce College ESL Coordinator Marie Kyllo understands what it feels like to be away from home. After completing her master’s degree in education, she and her family moved to Japan. There, she taught English while enjoying a unique Japanese lifestyle.

When asked if it was a daunting task, she replied, “I loved it…I can teach English to anyone.”

Prior to teaching in Japan, Kyllo attended Tacoma Community College, where she made connections with ESL students through the volunteer program. She started teaching simple words with hand puppets and story-telling. Her early community college experience inspired her to pursue teaching English as a lifelong career. It also produced enduring friendships.

When anthropologists study cultures, they must become attuned to the native customs. Many of them have an informant who gives them tips on how to adapt.

Kyllo became this person for refugees. When ESL students built fences around their balconies and hang slaughtered chickens from them, Kyllo explained it is inappropriate behavior according to American custom. People find themselves in similar situations while traveling abroad. Inside connections can be the key to survival. The ESL program provides this connection for non-native speakers pursuing higher education.

At the heart of the Pierce ESL program are 325 diverse students. They come from every country in the world, including those at war. Although conflicts might be expected, Kyllo says students work well together in the classroom. Ranging in ages from 19 to 85, some practiced farming and never attended school, while others practiced as doctors and lawyers in their home countries.

The challenges lay in the fact that none of them have been versed in traditional American academics or language. While Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn may be books native speakers understand, ESL students must translate them.

The difference between ESL and international study programs is that ESL students have immigrated from all over the globe to become a permanent part of American culture. Participation in the greater college community is imperative, Kyllo said.

Consider what it might be like to piece together into a new cultural fabric. This quilting process may be readily received by some, but difficult to grasp for others. Some find it overwhelming and give up. Support systems are vital to student success.

One way Pierce students can contribute to the ESL program is through volunteering as conversationalists. Instructors can invite ESL students into their classrooms for interactive relationships with the college community. Kyllo says, at times her students feel disconnected from the college community and any effort working toward their success is welcomed.

Although the program began more passively, it now focuses on rigorous academic training. The students are here to become fluent in the language and transition into the traditional college classroom.

The annual Multicultural Fair is another opportunity for Pierce students to get involved. The fair showcases the ESL students’ diverse talents and skills.

Student Programs Diversity Coordinator Arsenio Lopez helped collaborate last fall’s fair. As president of the First Nations Club, he teaches the college community about Native American culture.

Lopez explained that cultures are often different in reality than in their media portrayals. People are varied, complex and impossible to categorize.

“It’s important to remember that each person is an individual,” Lopez said.

Every person sees the world from his or her own viewpoint.

Like pieces of a quilt, each bit of fabric intertwined can become a new picture of home. Although people grow up in specific cultures, varied perspectives are endless. It’s this variation that creates American innovation and invention and pushes people forward to success on a changing road.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

College’s ESL program celebrates diversity

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